The Athenian strongman Pericles (495-429 BC) epitomizes the triumph of lies and propaganda in Classical Greece.
A successful, very wealthy aristocrat, he stopped at nothing to secure power. He betrayed allies, changed Athenian laws to restrict full legal rights to the descendents of Athenian citizens on both sides – and then changed them again to give citizenship to his own son Pericles the Younger, son of the non-Athenian Aspasia. He used his influence on the populist/radical democratic party in Athens to get rid of enemies, and likely murdered his own patron in the party, Ephialtes, when he became an obstacle to his rise to the top slot.
A master of vote-buying and manipulation with a gift for playing the narrow Athenian political game and very limited strategic abilities otherwise, Pericles managed to be always depicted wearing a helmet, as a glorious strategos, leader of men into battle – although it’s not all clear that he ever fought in a battle, and his military record as a general was poor at best. This contrasts with popular depictions of Socrates, who was a hoplite of great distinction in three hard-fought battles, as an unkempt old man.
A tyrant under most definitions of the term, or at least an obviously precursor to Caesarism, Pericles ruled by himself, imposing his will and lording over his enemies, for 32 years (461 BC-429 BC), longer than Joseph Stalin or Mao Zedong. He crushed subject peoples who tried to stop Pericles from bleeding them dry with tribute and looting that he used to build the Acropolis and so many more monuments. Yet, his followers and admirers across millennia have succeeded in making his name synonymous with liberty.
That this power-hungry manipulator who led his city head-on not only to the most despicable imperialist power politics, but also into a gruelling, pointless, never-ending, destructive, ultimately lost war against Sparta, is commonly cited as the epitome of democracy (1) is perhaps the greatest joke ever played on us by posterity. Pericles is the world’s greatest propaganda construct.
There’s a huge amount of studies on Athenian democracy, but few recent biographies of Pericles. The most comprehensive modern biography is Vincent Aulay’s prize-winning, French-language “Péricles” (2014), which is pretty conventional in many ways — particularly his persistent attempts to show Pericles in the best possible light, and minimize the underlying tensions in Athens and the wider Greek world between the Socratic/Platonic school of philosophers and their sworn enemies, the democrats and Sophists — but still highly informative.
For example, here’s Aulay’s summarizing the popular view of Pericles among the modern and not-so-modern chattering classes (the translations are mine):
Since the nineteenth century, this person (Pericles) is often regarded as one of the main architects of the “Greek miracle”, embodying “the ideal crystallized in pentelic marble”, to use the famous formula of Ernest Renan. At the head of a peaceful and harmonious city, Pericles would be the model of the wise and incorruptible leader, in accordance with the praised portrait drawn by the historian Thucydides.
However, Aulay points out, right off the bat:
Regarding the Athens of Pericles, Thucydides wrote: “It was by name, a democracy, but in fact, the first citizen exercised power.”
Following the fashion of ancient historians, we can compare Pericles with the other extremely famous Athenian of the era, Socrates, who wasn’t quite his nemesis but was in many senses — including the political sense — his opposite.
Pericles was born in 495 BC with a silver spoon in his mouth, a descendent of the famous Athenian reformer Clisthenes, and a member of Athens’ most influential family, the fabulously wealthy Alcmeonids. Socrates (470-399 BC) was born, at best, lower-middle class, and worked as a stonemason.
Pericles was educated by several private tutors including Anaxagoras, a haughty philosopher that may be considered the first Sophist — he taught the sons of the elite for a fee, and defended their parents from legal cases for yet higher fees. Socrates was a curious young man who, like any other youth, wasn’t allowed into Athens’ famed Agora; like some others, he hung about in workshops surrounding it, where he talked to small-time traders.
Pericles went into politics very early, using his wealth to buy goodwill from the fickle populace in 472 BC, the same year in which the enemies of the great Themistocles — victor over the Persians in Salamis and Plataea — created an opening for ambitious new faces by sending the old man into exile:
Pericles was rich enough to perform a liturgy – those public services to which only the wealthiest Athenians and non-citizens were subject. In the fourth century, barely a thousand individuals were compelled to do so out of several tens of thousands of taxpayers and Demosthenes even states that only around sixty people contributed to the liturgies each year… Even undervalued, these figures give an idea of the financial ease of the young Pericles who, without a doubt, was part of the pentakosiomedimnes, which brought together the richest Athenians: since the reforms attributed to the legislator Solon, at the beginning of the 6th century BC. AD, the citizens were divided into four censal classes, perhaps established according to the agricultural incomes, and whose pentakosiomédimnes formed the last degree. On this classification depended in part participation in civic institutions, since the Council of the Areopagus was then open only to the first two census classes.
Pericles’ move made him popular, which was the whole purpose of these displays of opulence, but didn’t turn him into the new Themistocles, Aulay explains;
Far from being a foreshadowing of his future policy, this first act therefore needs to be assessed at its proper measure: the choreography of 472 BC was an opportunity for Pericles to highlight his wealth and his education, while showing that he used both for the greater benefit of the community.
Cimon, the son of Miltiades, Athens’ leader at the battle of Marathon, became the first citizen, and pressed for a policy favorable to Sparta, in order to avoid warfare between the Greeks.
Plutarch, writing 500 years after the facts, states in his “Life of Pericles” that Pericles briefly “devoted himself to a military career, where he was brave and enterprising,” the only evidence that we have that he ever faced physical danger. This single sentence, with no additional detail, is highly suspect for two reasons:
-One, because Pericles was widely known, and derided, as a weakling, in an era of phyisical, hand-to-hand combat. In fact, his supporters tried to turn this into a virtue, in the process creating the myth of the “weakling as a sage” of which Woody Allen much later made a cinema career. There’s a a tasty dialogue, reported by Stesimbrotas of Thasos and relayed by Plutarch, in which the king of Sparta Archidamos questions the main opponent to Pericles, Thucydides of Alopeke, son of Melesias, to find out which of the two men was the strongest in the fight. Distraught, the latter would have replied: “When I fight with Pericles and I throw him to the ground, he disputes by claiming that he did not fall, and he wins the victory, because he changes his mind even those who saw him fall. ” This is evidence of two arguments often used to denigrate the sophists, these masters of eloquence who taught their lessons to whoever would pay: on the one hand, their excessive valuation of the discourse and, on the other hand, their obvious disdain for physical exercises — the basis to survive battle then as now.
-Two, because there was relatively little Athenian military action between 472 BC and 464 BC, when Cimon marched west to help Sparta put down a helot rebellion, triggered by an earthquake that caused much destruction in the Peloponnese. In fact, the only known campaign of the period was Cimon’s siege of Thasos, an Aegean island that was perhaps the first Athenian “ally” to try and opt out of the Delian League, a NATO-like arrangement created by Athens in 478 BC to supposedly continue the fight against the Persians. If Pericles was part of the Thasos campaign at some point, which is not known, chances are he saw little or no action at all, especially since the siege lasted two years.
We know Pericles was not part of Cimon’s expedition to help the Spartans, because he in fact remained in Athens to conspire against Cimon by taking control of the populist party simply because the aristocrats didn’t like him enough. As Plutarch puts it:
At last Pericles decided to devote himself to the people, espousing the cause of the poor and the many instead of the few and the rich, contrary to his own nature, which was anything but popular. But he feared, as it would seem, to encounter a suspicion of aiming at tyranny, and when he saw that Cimon was very aristocratic in his sympathies, and was held in extraordinary affection by the party of the “Good and True,” he began to court the favour of the multitude, thereby securing safety for himself, and power to wield against his rival.
Despite Pericles enthusiastic back-stabbing of Athens’ leader while he was abroad, he was still too young to take power for himself, and didn’t have the resources to crush Cimon by himself. As the populist faction led by Ephialtes used lawfare in 463 BC to try and ostracize Cimon for his failure to subdue Thasos and allegedly taking foreign bribes, the aristocratic Areopagus supported Cimon, rejecting the arguments presented by the “sycophant,” the private prosecutor, Pericles himself. The aristocrats, who weren’t iliterate, certainly knew of the bad blood between Cimon’s and Pericles’ ancient families, Aulay writes:
Between the line of Cimon and that of Pericles, there was a long tradition of rivalry, even animosity, dating back to the middle of the sixth century. Their respective ancestors had thus struggled to win the hand of Agariste, the daughter of the tyrant of Sicyone – a fight won by the Alcmeonid Megacles. Likewise, in 493 BC, the Alcmeonids had accused Miltiades, Cimon’s father, of having exercised tyranny in Chersonese. Finally, in 489 BC, Xanthippe (Pericles’ father) had instituted a second trial at Miltiade following the disastrous expedition of Paros.
Having failed to dispose of Cimon legally, Ephialtes and Pericles used street politics the next year, when Cimon had a fallout with the Spartans and returned to Athens with his army. Weakened by this rebuff from his allies, Cimon was ostracized in 461 BC and Ephialtes became first citizen: he immediately curtailed the Areopagus’ power and reinforced that of the popular Assembly, the Boule, easily swayed by those able to bribe the populace and pack meetings with their clients.
We know this is the case because such as state of affairs was later denounced by prominent opponents of democracy, such as Aristotle, and Athenians themselves looked for multiple ways to minimize the impact of voting within the city over the next couple of centuries, by using sortition (blind chance) to select public officials. Plutarch found himself forced to explain that Pericles was no Trumpian demagogue whose words moved masses, so it obviously was his money that did the trick:
The poet Ion, however, says that Pericles had a presumptuous and somewhat arrogant manner of address, and that into his haughtiness there entered a good deal of disdain and contempt for others
Ephialtes might have been more effective at playing the populist game. We’ll never know, because he was murdered pretty soon. Aulay, always generous with Pericles, claims this was in “circumstances that remain murky.” He adds that the long-standing interpretation that associates Pericles with the murder comes to us from Idomeneus, a disciple of Epicurus, several generations removed from the affair; and that Plutarch (who is even further removed) rejects the traditional intepretation.
From 461 BC, Pericles was the sole leader the populist faction and Athens’ first citizen, rarely bothered by the exiled Cimon, but he still had to contend with the elder Thucydides (the person who laughed at Pericles’ physical weakness in the dialogue reported by Plutarch, unrelated to the historian), a relative of Cimon, whom Pericles only managed to have ostracized in 443 BC.
Old Athens had been burned to the ground by the Persians after the battle of Thermopylae. Pericles reinforced his power by continuing a comprehensive plan of public works started under Cimon, which eventually gave us the construction of the Parthenon between 447 BC and 438 BC, as well as that of the Long Walls connecting the city to the Piraeus port, so it could withstand a military siege.
He also used the tribute paid by the Delian League to help his lower-class political base, by setting up the misthoi system of compensations for service in public positions.
These are Pericles’ greatest triumphs. The misthoi, and related payments for jury duty, did much to deepen lower-class participacion in Athens’ democratic system, but it did so at the cost of creating a solidly pro-Pericles constituency that essentially accepted the first citizen’s word as law for decades to come, and hounded his enemies for him. Is that democracy? Plato and Aristotle thought so, and were disgusted by the sight. Plutarch, summarizing the view of others before him, also wasn’t pleased:
Many others say that the people was first led on by him into allotments of public lands, festival-grants, and distributions of fees for public services, thereby falling into bad habits, and becoming luxurious and wanton under the influence of his public measures, instead of frugal and self-sufficing.
Pericles surrounded himself by the best and brightest, who he regaled with his wealth and power. As stated before, he twisted the law to favor his well-known non-Athenian lover and brothel-keeper Aspasia, and turned Athenian bully-style leadership of the Delian League into full-on imperialism.
In 449 BC, the Peace of Callias with the Persians was followed by revolts against such imperialism, which Athenian troops crushed, first in Eubea, and then in Samos. According to Plutarch, the talk in Athens was that it was Aspasia, who came from Miletus, who pushed Pericles to attack Miletus’ old foe Samos, and that Pericles only gave way to gratify her; others have gone as far as blaming Aspasia for the later, and much more more destructive, Athenian war with Sparta.
Regardless of the veracity of Aspasia-related gossip, the fact remains that Pericles’ democracy, a light of freedom for the people, was a prison for the peoples, paid for by the peoples, overseen by his street gangs and assemblies crammed with his clients and cronies.
In 432 BC, Pericles’ blatant militarism led to the campaign and battle of Potidaea, in which an already aging hoplite named Socrates fought with distinction, next to the young aristocrat Alcibiades, who was then about eighteen; Alcibiades got an aristeia, a prize for bravery, but argued that it should have been for Socrates, who saved him while wounded, the start of a long relationship that endured long after Pericles was gone.
Potidaea was one of the catalysts for the Peloponnesian War, which eventually killed both Pericles — felled like many other Athenians by the plague — and Athenian supremacy, after Sparta won in 404 BC. Still, it’s remarkable that Pericles is rarely, if ever, blamed for any of these disasters; that is largely the result of the propaganda efforts of yet another of his pals, the historian Thucydides. Aubray:
Thucydides was undoubtedly at the origin of the idealized representation of the strategist. A strategist himself before being exiled from Athens in 424 BC, the historian offers, in his History of the Peloponnesian War, a rationalizing reading of the action of Pericles, restoring several of his speeches, including the famous funeral oration pronounced in 431 BC in honor of the Athenian dead in the first year of the war. The fact remains that Thucydides only deals in detail with the last two years of Pericles’ life.
Thucydides, a man who frequented sophists of the kind that made Socrates’ and Plato’s blood boil, is also beloved by posterity. As in the case of Pericles, it’s really hard to read a bad word about him in modern times; this is not the place to dissect his thought — uncomplicated as it was, since it essentially amounted to a preference for political realism over idealism: of such meat was made the Democratic sausage in Athens — but it’s worth reflecting on the fact the even Thucydides criticized Pericles’ imperialist policies and his overconfidence when going into battle against the dangerous Spartans. In fact, Aulay explains:
…this vision is shared by MC Taylor, in “Thucydides, Pericles, and the Idea of Athens in the Peloponnesian War,” Cambridge, 2010, which radicalizes the analysis to the point of claiming that Thucydides “implicitly censored Pericles” and the Athenian imperialist project in itself.
Others outside of Pericles’ charmed circle went much further in their criticism, Aulay writes:
Among Socrates’ disciples, Pericles became a subject of both political and philosophical reflection, which quickly turned to the anti-model. An admirer of Sparta who was scornful of democracy, Antisthenes (445-365 BC) openly criticized Pericles by insulting his companion Aspasia. As for Plato, he makes the strategist a dangerous demagogue corrupting the crowd, incapable of raising even his own children. The Socratics therefore make Pericles a repellent, as part of a critical reflection on democracy and its functioning vitiated by nature … Whoever the author of “The Constitution of the Athenians” was — whether Aristotle himself or a member of his school — bluntly condemns the introduction of the misthos and accuses Pericles of having sought through it to corrupt the crowd, finding Platonic overtones there.
Pericles managed to quell in 429 BC a coup d’etat against himself, fuelled by Athens’ continued military setbacks against the Spartans, but died later that year holed up in Athens, with the Spartan army camped at its gates.
The war he started would last 25 years longer: plague took the lives of his two sons by his first wife, also in 429 BC, and the democratic mobs that he had stoked and fed took the life of the third, Pericles the Younger, born of Aspasia. The fact that the one person in Athens who desperately tried to save Pericles the Younger was Socrates, perhaps Pericles’ greatest enemy, is a great example of the contradictions in Pericles’ legacy.
Towards the end of the war with Sparta, in 406 BC, Socrates was appointed a representative of his tribe in the Assembly, which debated what fate should befall the generals of the Battle of Arginusae. These generals, including Pericles the Younger, were blamed for the loss of damaged ships after a major victory, as they sailed away to pursue the defeated Spartan navy.
Amid huge political pressures, a popular vote decided upon capital punishment, a measure which the assembly rejected. Street politics a la Pericles (the Older) led to threats of death directed at the representatives, most of whom relented and allowed the executions. But not Socrates.
Alone as epistates, chairman of the Assembly’s executive body, the philosopher blocked the vote, citing the superiority of the law over the moods of the mob; this way, he secured the support of others who persuaded the Assembly to pass a motion ordering that the generals be tried separately.
In the end, however, mob rule won and the original motion was carried: all six generals tried were found guilty and executed, including Pericles the Younger. Further street agitation followed the executions and charges were brought against the instigators, creating a terrible political mess and leading to demoralization of the all-important Athenian navy and eventual defeat in the long war against the Spartans.
One can only imagine that the outcome of this trial, and Alcibiades’ subsequent second exile and murder, only helped to build up Socrates’ loathing for democratic procedure. Quoting Socrates after these events, Plato wrote that “ideals belong in a world only the wise man can understand,” making the philosopher the only type of person suitable to govern others.
In Plato’s dialogue “The Republic,” Socrates openly objects to the democracy that ran Athens during his adult life. When the Athenian democracy was overthrown by the triumphant Spartans, it was replaced by a pro-Spartan oligarchic junta known as the Thirty Tyrants and led, of all people, by a former student and friend of Socrates named Critias, who was also a relative of Plato. After a year, the Thirty were demoted and democracy was restored in the city, amid promises of amnesty for most of the recent events.
These promises were empty. Like Alcibiades and Anaxagoras before him, Socrates, a well-known friend of the Tyrants and enemy of the democrats, was put on trial for religious reasons thinly hiding political motives (2); Anytus, an upper-class, well-known democrat who had often been mocked by Alcibiades, led the prosecution in front of 500 juries. It was all exceedingly democratic, and the greatest genius of antiquity was sentenced, by a very large democratic majority, to death.
- This is from a New Yorker’s article published in 2020: “‘Future ages will wonder at us, as the present age wonders at us now,’ Pericles, the great Athenian statesman, declared in his funeral oration, a celebrated speech in the winter of 431–430 B.C.E. He wasn’t wrong. We continue to admire Athens’s architectural splendor, stage its tragedies and comedies, and marvel, especially, at much that its democracy (the world’s first) wrought: participatory government, equal treatment before the law in private disputes, a distaste for class consciousness, juries made up of citizens, and tolerance about others’ personal lives.
- The legal backbone for Socrates’ prosecutions, as well as others before him, was a decree passed under Pericles, and pushed by Diopeithes, a seer, sometime before 432 BC. The decree looked to curb impiety, targeted first those who did not acknowledge divine things.